Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Walk Article


Shvi'i shel Pesach-5772

Rabbi David Walk


            When the animated move Prince of Egypt came out in 1998, I was living in Israel.  They have an interesting system of showing foreign movies over there.  For matinees they play them dubbed, so that kids can more easily follow the story.  In the evening showings they show them in the original language with subtitles.  So, I took my kids to see it in the afternoon, and it was great.  I especially loved the song There Can be Miracles, and then in the middle they start singing the beginning of the Song of the Sea, Az Yashir  The whole movie was in Hebrew, so they're singing that in Hebrew, too.  It was only much later that I saw the film in English and realized that they kept the words of Moshe's great song in his original words, namely Hebrew.  I found it surprising that a commercial American film would have Hebrew lyrics and profoundly moving, because poetry can't really be translated.   Poetry is a major component of the holiday of Pesach.  The Seder is almost half poetry, in the form of Psalms.  Then we recite Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs (Poem of Poems?) on a Shabbat of Pesach.  And the holiday culminates in the anniversary of the crossing of the Sea, and, therefore, on the seventh day of Pesach we read the Song of the Sea.  So, this is a great opportunity to discuss an idea about Biblical poetry.

               Biblical poetry is similar to all poetry in the fact that it uses many elegant grammatical forms, which are uncommon in prose, like similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, and meter or rhythm.  However, there are some features of Biblical poetry which are not common to other poetry.  The most obvious is the structure of the columns of text.  In biblical poetry one can immediately recognize that it's poetry because of regular spacing in the lines which form a structure looking like bricks or, sometimes, columns.  I believe that this custom began because we were being informed that this was poetic material and must be dealt with differently.  These sections call for more ingenuity on our part to parse the verses for even deeper levels of meaning.  Now these interpretations can go in many directions and may be unique for each poem, but I think that two themes emerge from Biblical poetry.  And I think that these two motifs can be discovered from the poetry of Pesach, especially from the Seder, but strongly pushed in the Song of the Sea.

            At the Seder we split the recitation of the poetic material, namely Hallel, into two parts.  We recite two chapters of Hallel connected to the recitation of the story before the meal, and then we recite a lot more of Hallel after the meal, as a fitting ending to the formal Seder service.  There are many opinions about how this material was split and much has been written about why, because of our excitement, we can't wait to recite the Hallel Psalms until after the meal.  But I don't want to talk about any of that stuff.  I believe that the early poems are about the past and the later poems are about the present and future, in other words:  us.  At the beginning of the Seder we say, 'If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children's children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.'  This means that this ancient story is relevant to me.  I still benefit from that long ago episode.  At the end of Magid we say, 'In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.'  This his story has become my story (I love that pun!).  Many commentaries believe that my individual emerging from Egypt includes our personal and national struggles with our modern demons, from Ahmadinejad to being overweight or addicted.  That's reflected in these poems.  The early ones are about the past, the latter the present and future. 

            I think this reality is true of all Biblical poetry.  Some are about the past and some the future.  The poems about the past, whose goal is to get us excited about these past events, I would like to call Az Yashir poems.  That enigmatic phrase which can be translated 'then one will sing,' is an odd version of the future tense, because the song was sung in the past (This phrase is repeated in Numbers 21:17.), but it anticipates a future in which the offspring of the original singers will continue to chant these words.  This is important because we're being informed that these past events must eternally resonate within the Jewish nation.  They will remain relevant until the end of time. 

            On the other hand the poems about the future are called a new song or shir chadash.  That phrase, which appears most famously at the beginning of Psalm 149 (and appears twice in the Seder), is recited daily in the traditional morning service.  It is King David's way of telling us that we must continue his practice of singing God's praises for the miracles, large and small, which we all encounter in our lives.  It teaches us to be on the lookout for the finger of God (sometimes the whole hand) throughout our lives.  We must believe that the God of the Bible continues to guide our destiny.

            This idea corresponds to a famous idea of Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik.  In discussing the Ninth of Av, the Rav taught that there is old mourning and new mourning.  Old mourning is when the Sages instruct us to feel bad about ancient events, like the Kinot of Tisha B'av.  New mourning is when we suffer personal loss, and doesn't require rabbinic encouragement.  Similarly, we have old praise for ancient miracles, and new praise for modern day wonders.  This new praise sometimes needs to be encouraged, because we often give credit to everyone but God for our contemporary victories.

            Pesach and its many songs and poems require us to sing both kinds of poems.  We sing of ancient redemption at the Seder, and long ago love in Shir haShirim, but we must feel those emotions again today.   And so this Friday, we both sing of the historical splitting of the Sea, and scan our landscape for the modern wonders.  May our search and our song be inspirational!  Chag Sameach!                  

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